Years before Derby, Wright modeled game off Cuddyer
NL 2013 All-Star teammates among baseball's many South Hampton Roads products
Growing up in Virginia, David Wright wanted to be like Mike -- Cuddyer, not Jordan.
Michael Cuddyer was the big kid in Wright's neighborhood in Chesapeake, a city of 228,000 with historical roots dating to colonial times. It was Cuddyer, launching his Major League career in 2001 with the Twins, who set in motion a movement that has made the South Hampton Roads region in southeastern Virginia one of the hotbeds of baseball in America.
Following in Cuddyer's footsteps have been such stars as Wright, brothers B.J. and Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Mark Reynolds and Daniel Hudson. Per capita, you would have a hard time finding a more fertile ground for ballplayers on mainland USA.
No matter how big and wealthy they get, the Virginians tend to stick around South Hampton Roads. It was this connection, this bond, that led Wright -- "Captain America" of the Mets and captain of the National League's contingent for the Chevrolet Home Run Derby on Monday night at Citi Field -- to select Cuddyer to join the NL's power quartet, along with Cuddyer's Rockies teammate Carlos Gonzalez and the Nationals' Bryce Harper.
When CarGo determined he was a no-go with an injured finger, Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez was chosen to replace him. This did not seem to placate Pittsburgh fans, who booed Wright when the Mets' star appeared in the Steel City.
Phillies fans, promoting outfielder Domonic Brown for the Derby, voiced agreement with their fellow Pennsylvanians that Cuddyer's credentials did not justify his inclusion. Cuddyer, Brown and Alvarez were selected to the NL All-Star squad as reserves.
Cuddyer, an All-Star for the second time, seemed neither surprised nor offended that some fans were upset their favorite was overlooked by Wright.
"Any time you do a format where you have a player picking the players," Cuddyer said, "he's probably going to get some heat. I'm excited and really honored that David thought of me and is going to bat for me -- literally and figuratively.
"I'm extremely proud of him and all the guys from our area. I'm as big a fan of David as anybody, and of all those guys from home: B.J. and Justin, Mark Reynolds, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Hudson, Clay Rapada. I'm extremely proud to be from Chesapeake. Guys who grew up there play hard and do things the right way."
Wright, 30, who is four years younger than Cuddyer, was taken by the Mets with the 38th pick in the first round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft out of Hickory High School in Chesapeake. Cuddyer had been the ninth overall pick by the Twins in 1997 out of Chesapeake's Great Bridge High School, before Hickory was built.
Wright made reference to their shared history after announcing his Home Run Derby teammates.
"He's a few years older than me, but we grew up a few minutes from each other," Wright said of Cuddyer. "Growing up, everybody kind of strived to be like him. He was kind of the first high Draft pick out of our area, and I really credit him for a lot of scouts discovering that area.
"This was kind of before a lot of the showcases where you could be seen. You had to go get seen. He was that first one, that first-round pick. I remember the day he got drafted. They announced it over the PA system, 'cause we were still in school. The excitement, the buzz around him made me work harder."
The common thread in the South Hampton Roads community was an energetic youth baseball advocate named Towny Townsend, who passed away in 2007.
"He was really important to all of us," Cuddyer said. "He would put on clinics, have hitting schools. We all attended his camps and clinics. That's where I first got to know David. When I graduated high school and got drafted by the Twins, David was in the eighth grade.
"I followed his high school career. My high school split up, and he went to the new high school, where my sister, Katie, went. She was a year younger than him and was on the cheer team."
Cuddyer was not the only Great Bridge senior taken in the first round of that 1997 Draft. John Curtice, a left-handed pitcher, was chosen 17th overall by the Red Sox. Arm injuries ended his career before he could reach the Majors.
"Having John and myself, two high school teammates, drafted in the first round brought attention to our area," Cuddyer said. "David was next, then B.J., Mark and Ryan, Justin. Towny Townsend had a hand in [the development of] every single one of us."
Reynolds, Zimmerman and Hudson are from Virginia Beach, which is part of Hampton Roads. The Uptons, Wright and Cuddyer call Chesapeake, about half the size of Virginia Beach, home.
"It's not a big town, but it's a huge baseball area with a lot of people who supported us growing up," Cuddyer said. "Nobody ever told us we couldn't be players.
"I remember a time when Mark Reynolds was the shortstop on the local AAU team; B.J. was the center fielder, and Justin was the batboy. I worked out with them, and my dad was one of the head coaches."
Manny Upton, father of the two Braves outfielders, is Cuddyer's partner in a training center and hitting school called "7 Cities Sports" in Chesapeake. Cuddyer's father manages the business.
In support of an old friend who had been named the baseball coach at Grassfield High School, Cuddyer was part of a memorable benefit home run derby held at the new school in 2007. It included both Uptons, Zimmerman, Reynolds and Wright, drawing a crowd Cuddyer estimated at 3,500 to 4,000 fans.
"David and I got to the final round," Cuddyer said, grinning. "I won."
Including a career-high 32 homers in 2009 and 24 in 2006, when he drove in 109 runs for the Twins, Cuddyer has gone deep 172 times in his career.
"I feel like my performance warrants being in the competition," Cuddyer said. "It's not like I'm a slap hitter."
Wright has no doubt the big kid in his neighborhood belongs in the company of elite sluggers.
"Getting a chance to work out with him in the offseason, using the same trainer, we'll hit together," Wright said. "I think he's one of the more underrated players in the game, and I'm glad he got the opportunity to step up and make the All-Star team.
"It was a pretty easy choice for me to take him to the Home Run Derby, as well."